Tom McGurk: Dropping BOD saps the spirit from a team on cusp of glory
After this bizarre decision, Gatland's hide is further out the window than he could dream of.
Published 04/07/2013 | 05:00
O Captain, my Captain . . .
Imagine if you will that moment in the dressing-room. It is two minutes to the zero hour, the ref has already stuck his head in and shouted "Ready?". The noise coming in from the stands above you reduces everyone to shouting. The blood is pumping, the eyes are wide with excitement, you gather in a circle clutching each other's bodies tightly.
The smell is of wintergreen and sweat and fear.
Like warriors, like drowning sailors looking into the deep, like soldiers when the whistle goes at dawn and its over the top into no-man's land, you hang on to each other for courage and comfort. You need each other, you are blood-brothers, you are trembling on the edge of the precipice of your sporting Valhalla.
You look at you teammates: you look into their eyes, you sense their energy, their fear, their expectation. Here is the moment when sport becomes a cruel and gruelling mental marathon, the great psychological endurance test.
And then you see him. Your rock in the swirling tide of emotions. There he is, the one and only Brian O'Driscoll, your leader and captain.
Here is a sporting god in shirt and shorts. Here is more tries, more tackles, more moments of genius and more magic than any other being has fitted into a lifetime in rugby. As you look at him you begin to feel his energy, his incredible levels of concentration and organisation swirling over you.
Now he's spelling it out for you, how we play it, what we do and what we don't do. The authority of genius; the certainty of perfection. Who wouldn't want to go into battle with this guy, who wouldn't want him on the 22 with minutes left and points needed?
By contrast on Saturday in the Lions' dressing-room in Sydney a big Welsh second-row forward will be assembling his pack around him. It will be Hamlet without the Prince. The voices from the valleys will dominate, the Welsh will be in song and story among and for each other. Will Messers Sexton, Bowe and O'Brien think they are in the wrong dressing-room? Will the contrast between Captain O'Driscoll and Captain Wynn Jones even tempt some to smirk?
Who shrunk the Lions to this bizarre scenario, who forgot that such genius only comes once or even twice in a generation? Why and how did Warren Gatland forget that there are two Brian O'Driscoll's? BOD the player and BOD the leader of men?
Perhaps the years are showing on BOD the player, but if anything the years have improved BOD the leader. I even suspect that by now – only a day on – as Warren surveyed the papers and trawled the internet this morning, he may have begun to suspect that his New Zealand hide is much further out the window than he could have dreamed of. If the Lions lose on Saturday, this disaster will fill up most of his tombstone.
Dropping O'Driscoll has become a global event – people across at least three continents were disbelieving over their cornflakes yesterday morning. Nor should we make the mistake that there is only shock and awe in Ireland. This story is on every sports page in the world.
Brian O'Driscoll is a global sports star, but a global icon for all of the old-fashioned sporting virtues that we loved and miss so much in the jungle that is contemporary professional sport. His genius, modesty, bravery, courtesy, sportsmanship – and above a gift so rare among today's superstar's – a compelling deficiency in narcissism.
Astonishingly, too, Warren seems to have totally forgotten the knock-on psychic effect this will have on the touring party. I'll bet, too, that at the first opportunity after they heard the decision the Irish players will have gathered in a room alone to contemplate and to try to understand. Oh, to be a fly on that wall. Did Gatland's ears burn?
Make no mistake too that in the aftermath there are already wider consequences. The whole camp will have suddenly felt the energy being sucked out of the tour, noticed the bad smell hanging around the hotel corridors; the Irish increasingly hanging and sitting around together. Suddenly the atmosphere in the build-up to the biggest moment of the tour is in danger of becoming toxic.
Instead of preparing for the defining match of their lives, the Lions are now all staggering around under the weight of the biggest story in their lives. Suddenly the best energy on tour is not coming from the players but from the press pack. By the time Saturday comes, I suspect too many of them will have been drained. The Test is in danger of becoming a damp-squib to this epic thanks to Warren.
For example, think of the impact on Jonny Sexton. Now he plays for the first time with two new centres, no Leinster teammate to organise the defence, and no O'Driscoll to play off his elegant shifts and shimmies. It's the wonderful Sean O'Brien's first Test start, but I suspect that a small part of that huge heart will be heavy running out on Saturday.
Finally, can you imagine this afternoon's final day's preparation for the Test and on the pitch one Brian ('O Captain, my Captain') O'Driscoll reduced to holding the tackle bag?
As ever, of course, he will do it with grave dignity.
Tom McGurk hosts RTE's international rugby coverage